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Experiencing Joy

In the summer after my junior year at the University of Michigan, I moved to Chicago to pursue what Dr. Stebbins said would be a job better suited to my personality than working in his primate lab. (It seems my inability to keep records did not bode well for a career involving vast amounts of data collection.) I found that job at Lehman Brothers as a sales assistant in Institutional Equity Sales. During my interview in the real world, my future boss nodded toward the coffee cup sitting on the table in front of me asked me, "Is that half empty or half full?"

I'd never heard the expression before and so thought he was asking a serious question of semantics. I stumbled for a moment and then said, "Well, I suppose if it were a bucket you could simply put it under the spigot and fill it up!" I'm not sure how that bon mot went over with my boss, but I did get the job.

Nowadays the 'half empty / half full' expression is a familiar barometer of optimism versus pessimism, the reality of a situation simply depending on the view one takes....there is still the same amount of water in the glass, it's just a matter of how you choose to see its potential or lack.

I was thinking about this expression last night while I was out walking. I have for sometime been thinking about how to have more joy in my life. How long has it been since I've felt real joy? It seems ages since I have experienced that visceral response, that unexpected surprise, experienced a 'yes' to something longed for instead of another 'no', that winning the lottery, happy ending feeling. How long has it been since I've had that in my life? Too long.

And yet, I wonder if my expectations are too great, if I am not seeing the glass as half full. I have battled bouts of depression since childhood, at the same time, I have an almost relentless streak of optimism that causes me to pursue the next adventure/project/idea with the thrill of new beginnings (the joyful undertaking followed by a nagging whisper that announces that the result will be the same, another disappointment only on a different playing field). This duality leaves me exasperated, as if I'm living with two people inside my head, an exuberant young optimist and a forlorn, fearful Eeyore who's convinced she's made the wrong turn somewhere about a decade back.

For the past few weeks, I've been trying to battle back the constant thrum of sadness and loss of what might have been with a litany of glass half full aphorisms. And yes, if you've been lucky enough to never have lived with depression, I can assure you it is a battle at times, though you must comfort yourself that it is winnable. Under the new plan, every time I think a gloomy thought I try to turn it around and think of a positive thought or action I can choose instead. This battle of wills is exhausting but the alternative is worse. So instead of lamenting the inability to move out west right now, I'm looking at houses here, while keeping one eye on the horizon. Instead of going home and crawling into bed each night, I've started an exercise program and begun spending each Sunday afternoon at the beach, reading. Perhaps I should also stop expecting a successful result and simply be happy with the doing. But the idea of consistently lowering expectations seems anathema to the whole point of living, of reaching for bigger goals and larger dreams. Closing doors seems an admission of defeat, a acceptance of limitations.

Which leads me to the question: can we experience joy by the changing the way we look at circumstances? Can we create joy through force of will when it seems an unwilling participant? Or has it been there all along, the glass always half full, but simply distorted by the unfortunate perspective of the viewer?

I don't know the answer to these questions, but I do want to experience joy, that deep-belly laugh, that heart-felt sigh that ends in a smile, the realization that you have never been as happy as you are in this moment and that it feels better than you could ever have imagined, that your dream really did come true. I just don't know how to get there from here.
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Vodka Mom said…
i have hope. If I didn't, I couldn't go on. (nice to hear from you. I was a bit worried...)
Keetha said…
I hear you. I know just what you mean.

For the last few months, each morning I write a paragraph to help me be clear on what I do want. I write, I do want to write, I do want to be happy, I do want to be healthy, I do want etc., etc, etc., about everything from the mundane trivial stuff to big issues of spirituality and grace.

It helps.
cce said…
This is an apt query, a true dilemma. I think those that experience periods of great, exuberant joy also tend to get bogged down in spirals of depression. It's as if there is a price for happiness. And somehow when the joy slips away we fear it may never come back. There is power in just making it so, putting a pretty face on it even when it sucks. As my mother would say, chin up and everything else will follow.
Mark said…
Have a nice Thanksgiving!

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